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UPHILL BATTLE : Mountain Stages Could Prove to Be LeMond’s Downfall in Tour de France

Times Staff Writer

As the Tour de France ended it’s seventh stage Saturday in Bordeaux, American Greg LeMond maintained his five-second overall edge over France’s Laurent Fignon--along with the bicycle race leader’s coveted yellow jersey. His main concern now is how long he can continue to wear it.

LeMond is coming off of what would normally be considered a disappointing year. In his first full racing season since 1986, he has not won a major race. The Tour of Italy appeared to be another disappointment, but an especially strong finish in the final time trial provided a hint of what was to come.

“It (the Tour of Italy finish) gave me confidence that I could at least do something in France, maybe win a stage or something,” LeMond said. “It gave a hope, a possibility of doing well.”

Monday, the race will enter the Pyrenees in what will be the first of seven mountain stages. Mountain climbing is where Fignon is considered particularly strong.

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LeMond is taking a cautious line on this portion of the race. “I feel strong and I’m waiting to see,” he said, “but it’s impossible to tell. I haven’t been in such good form for a long time, I have nothing to judge myself on.”

One factor that may work to LeMond’s advantage is the similarity of this year’s race to the one in 1986, when LeMond became the first and only American to win the Tour.

“This year’s race is about the same as when I won in ’86,” he said. “It’s always difficult. The winner is the strongest rider in the world. The mountains don’t matter.”

Having Fignon five seconds behind him doesn’t seem to bother LeMond, but he is definitely respectful of Fignon’s ability. LeMond still considers Fignon the favorite.

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Assessing his current condition, LeMond said: “I feel real strong, but I’m tired mentally. The last three days have been full of non-stop demands, and it’s taking its toll. Right now, the most important thing is recuperation. Six weeks ago, I was having a difficult time in the Tour of Italy, but I attribute it (his lead in the Tour de France) to training and dedication. I came in as a hopeful to be a top-20 finisher. I’m already satisfied; anything else is a bonus.

“You don’t win a race by surviving. You have to be capable of being an all-around rider, not just mentally tough. You have to be consistent. I always do well under pressure.”

Andy Hampsten is the other American contender in the Tour de France. Although Hampsten finished 94th in Saturday’s stage, he was only four seconds behind the winner and remained in 14th place overall.

Hampsten was noncommittal on the mountain stages, but takes a different approach to cycling than LeMond.

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“Things happen (in cycling),” he said. “Bike racing is designed to give people problems. If I go too hard one day, the next day I’ll be in trouble. Racing is about survival.”

LeMond’s position in the race has come as no surprise to Hampsten, who said: “He’s riding where he should be, using the strength everyone knows he has.”


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